Facts about Islam
Islam is an Arabic word meaning submission to God. As a religion Islam calls for complete acceptance of and submission to the teachings and guidance of God. The word has connotations of peace and wholeness. It has the same root as “salam” – peace (read more on the True, Peaceful Face of Islam).
A Muslim is one who freely and willingly accepts the supreme power of God and strives to live his or her life in accord with the teachings of God.
Allah is the Arabic language word for God. Allah is also used by Arabic-speaking Christians and Jews in prayer or speaking about God. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are the three great monotheistic world religions.
Muslims believe that the Qur‘an (or Koran) is God‘s word as revealed to the prophet Muhammad through the angel Gabriel. The Qur‘an is the basis for Muslim beliefs regarding God, worship, morality, knowledge, wisdom, the human relationship to God, and relationships among human beings. Just as Christian believe that the person of Jesus was the Word or manifestation of God, Muslims believe that it is the Qur‘an itself which is that Word and manifestation. The original text of the Quran is in Arabic and translations are available in major libraries and bookstores everywhere.
Muhammad is respected as a prophet. He is not regarded as the “founder” of Islam, but rather as one in a long line of prophets from Adam to Abraham, Moses, Solomon, and Jesus. Islam therefore did not begin with Muhammad, whose role was that of a “messenger” who received and passed on a revelation from God. He made it clear that Muslims should “call me the servant of God and His messenger.” He is regarded as a human being and in no way divine. He is seen as the final prophet who completed the revelation began by the earlier prophets.
The Hadith — the teachings, sayings and actions of Muhammad — were reported and collected by his devoted companions. They explain and elaborate the Qur‘anic verses and provide a model for the conduct of Muslims.
Every action done with the awareness that it fulfills the will of God is considered an act of worship, but the specific acts termed the Five Pillars of Islam provide the framework of Muslim spiritual life.
1) The Declaration of Faith: “I bear witness that there is no god but God and that Muhammad is his messenger.”
2) Prayer is prescribed five times a day as a duty towards God. Prayer strengthens and enlivens belief in God and inspires one to a higher morality.
3) Fasting is called for during the month of Ramadan. This involves abstention from food, beverages, and sexual activity from sunrise to sunset and it means curbing evil intentions and desires. Allowances are made for health, age and circumstances. After sunset, there are family and community meals and celebration.
4) Zakat is a proportionately fixed contribution from the surplus earnings and wealth of the Muslims. It is spent on the poor and needy and for the welfare of society as a whole.
5) The Hajj is the pilgrimage to the Ka‘bah in Makkah (Mecca), at least once in a lifetime, provided one has the means to undertake the journey.
Muslims, Christians and Jews all worship the same God. The Qur‘an has many stories about Biblical characters which are very similar to those in the Old and New Testaments. Jesus is very highly honored as a prophet, although Muslims believe that Christians erred in regarding him as divine. Muslims greatly respect Mary as the mother of Jesus. They believe in the virginal birth of Jesus through the power of the Spirit of God. However, they believe that errors have crept into the Jewish and Christian traditions and into the text of the Bible. The mission of Muhammad was to correct those errors.
Nonetheless, the Qur‘an teaches that Jews, Christians and Muslims are all “People of the Book.” As believers, Jews and Christians have juridical rights under Islamic law to live as “protected peoples.” Historically, Islam has been a relatively tolerant religion. Islam clearly teaches that “There is to be no compulsion in matters of religion.” In the 7th century Muslim armies brought vast territories under Muslim political control, but conversion to Islam was voluntary and was not imposed “by the sword.” This is a Western myth.
Some Misconceptions about Islam
“Muslim,” “Arab,” and “Islam” are not interchangeable terms. Islam refers to the religion itself. Muslims are the followers of Islam. Arabs are a linguistic and cultural community with a common history. Most but not all Arabs are Muslims. Most Muslims are not Arabs. About 85% of the world‘s Muslims are not Arabs. Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world. About 12 million Arabs are Christian and thousands are Jewish.
“Mohammadanism” is a misnomer for Islam and offends its very spirit, since Muhammad was a merely a messenger of God.
The accurate translation of the Arabic word jihad should be “exertion of effort or struggle” in accord with the will of God. It is any strenuous effort — physical, intellectual, spiritual — for the good. The “higher jihad” is the personal struggle to become a better Muslim. Jihad can mean standing up to speak the word of truth to tyrants and to call for justice. It can also be a religiously guided military struggle, but it does not mean “holy war.” The Arabic word for war is "harb," which does not appear in the Qur‘an. Islam is not a pacifist religion. It teaches that a war in self-defense is permissible and a duty, but the conduct of war is to be in accord with rules forbidding the harming of women, children and old men or the destruction of property. This is the “lesser jihad.” Not every “jihad” called by political leaders is in accord with the requirements of Islam. Such a call can often be regarded as an appeal to emotionally-laden traditional symbols without real religious standing.
“Islamic fundamentalism”: There are widespread movements of spiritual and cultural revivalism in the Arab and Muslim worlds. Many of them are critical of Western influence and seek a return to the authentic roots of their own traditions. A small number of these movements use violent means to achieve political goals. These are what is usually referred to in the West as fundamentalists. More mainstream Muslims consider such movements as deviations from authentic Islam.
See more reading material about Islam specifically for students (PDF) >>